Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Software Implementation 101

RSM Richter, a Canadian accounting firm, addressed software implementation in two recent issues of its midsized companies publication, Advantage. They are short, balanced and well worth reading. In Part 1, they do a good job of setting realistic expectations:

Documenting and automating every minute step of every process in a business cannot be put on a fixed, linear implementation schedule. Unforeseen problems will arise, requiring changes to those business processes and/or the software itself. Sometimes these changes can impact the timeline by weeks or months.

While their analysis is based on the larger Enterprise Resource Planning ("ERP") software packages, the principles are the same for any sized accounting implementation.

In Part 2 (not yet published to the web), they make a point that I would like to amplify: one of the responsibilities of the client is to "appoint a dedicated (and qualified) project manager and steering committee".

If I had to isolate one factor that points to the overall success or failure of an accounting implementation, it would be the dedication of a staff member to the project. Too often I have seen the software project just added on top of the staff's normal responsibilities. The result is that the implementation is sacrificed to whatever is most urgent to the staff member at any given time, i.e. work on the new system stops at month end, budget preparation time, quarterly reporting etc.

If the project is going to involve more than one person from the implementation consultant, the consultant typically appoints a project manager. Even then, the client needs to appoint their own project manager, someone who has the time and authority to ensure client staff do their part. From personal experience, I know that as an external consultant I cannot make anyone do anything on the client staff. I have to work through somebody senior who appreciates the value of the project.

Now that you have a realistic view of what is involved in an accounting software implementation, what if you aren't sure whether in fact you need a new system or not? David Kelly, a contributor to the Microsoft Midsize Business Center has some practical points here.

Bottom Line: if you are considering an accounting software implementation, I would recommend you read these ERP 101 newsletters. If you sell accounting software, I would recommend you get your potential clients to read them. It will help set realistic expecations for the project.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Getting to Phase 2

How much of Excel do you use?

  • If you spent a little more time designing your key spreadsheets so that all of the calculations were consistent and the data flowed in a logical way, could you produce more effective reports?

  • If you learned a little more about graphing or pivot tables, could your presentations be a little more powerful?

Most accountants I know freely admit that they just scratch the surface of what Excel can do.

Now, what about your accounting system?

That's what I mean by Phase 2: the time when you take a hard look at how the system is being used versus what it's capable of. How much of the initial plan got implemented? How much of it was deferred because of time or budget constraints? Back in the heat of dealing with all of the issues of going live on your system you had to make some compromises to get the system up and working. What about taking some time now and revisiting those decisions? Pull out a list of the features that were identified as "nice to have's" and start to think about implementations.

Phase 2 has been a theme in this blog since its inception. This year, I was asked to write about it for CA Magazine, the voice of Canada's Chartered Accountants. You can find the article here. In it I list some Phase 2 project ideas to help you get started.

In this blog, I would like to talk about a key Phase 2 relationship - you and your consultant. Most accounting systems are implemented by consultants. They have the technical training to set up the system, import the history and train the staff. If you have been live on your system for over a year, you should have someone back for a post-audit. They can take a fresh look at how your staff is using the system and suggest:

  • Features in your current system that are not being used effectively,

  • Features that you have paid for but which have not been implemented,

  • Features that you could use but don't currently have,

  • Software upgrade timing,

  • Procedures that could be streamlined or made more effective, and

  • Answers to questions / problems the staff have but have not voiced.
Depending on the size and complexity of your system, a post-audit can be as quick as two days - one for analysis and one for reporting.


A lot depends on the qualifications and experience of the consultant. If you don't have someone you trust and who knows your business / industry, then your first task should be to find one.

Oh, and if you would like to improve your Excel knowledge, let me recommend Chris Wood (aka Captain Excel).

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

What Makes You Proud of Your Company?

This blog is all about energizing accounting staff by providing them with the best use of their accounting system. You will be a more productive, more effective team member if your tools save you time rather than getting in the way. But, on a deeper level, even the best tools are not enough to motivate you if you're not proud of where you work.

I am proud of the work my employer does in disaster relief both locally and globally. As an accountant, I am particularly proud that we can say:

As always with United Church emergency appeals, 100 percent of all donations received will be committed to support relief and reconstruction work for people in need. There is no administration fee deducted. This is made possible thanks to the generous ongoing support of United Church members to the church’s Mission and Service (M&S) Fund. Contributions to M&S allow the United Church to absorb the staffing and operating costs of processing donations for emergency appeals.

The situation in Haiti and other Caribbean countries is serious. Hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and most recently Ike have left as many as one million Haitians homeless and more than 500 dead. Serious flooding was reported in many areas, and the country's agricultural capacity is again weakened.

The Accounting Department is rarely in a position to save lives, but if we can reduce the cost of administration so that more money is available to the people who can, then we have played a valuable part.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Practical Tips for Requests For Proposals (RFP's)

Elizabeth Engel at Beaconfire Consulting has some practical advice for companies issuing Requests For Proposals (RFP's). In an earlier post, I argued for reducing the boilerplate that typically goes into RFP's and their responses, but Elizabeth goes a lot further with practical suggestions about the whole process.

Some of Elizabeth's do's and don'ts:

  • DO allow vendors a reasonable amount of time to respond.

  • DON’T send out a 50 page RFP.

  • DON’T forbid vendors to contact you.

  • DO share the questions that one vendor asks with all the vendors who received the RFP.

  • DO focus on your needs and problems, but allow the vendor to propose the solution.

  • DO your homework and narrow the number of vendors to 4-6.

  • DO be realistic about your project time frame.

  • DO be up front about your process and keep your prospective vendors informed.

If you are new to the RFP process, there is an entertaining description of it in the now ended 1099 online magazine (from which the above picture was taken).

Thanks to Jeff Brooks at Merkle for pointing out Elizabeth's blog. Jeff's Donor Power Blog is focussed on not-for-profits, but this advice applies to anyone issuing RFP's.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Energizing the Staff

If I were to create an EnergizedAccounting award, the first recipient would have to be Julie Kinkaid, a staff member of the Stewardship unit in the United Church of Canada. Charities typically have more worthy projects than funds, so staff have to "do more with less". In an atmosphere where the resources are always being stretched, people need something to re-energize them.

This year, Julie and her team decided to kick off the fall fundraiser with a little pizzazz. She also wanted to emphasize to staff just how the work of the church is funded as well as the rewarding ways the money is used. On the proverbial shoe string budget, she organized a week of events, such as a kick off (accompanied by some staff volunteer music), theme days where staff wore a specific colour, a knowledge contest, and a door decorating contest (see pictures). All emphasized the mission.

Just as in the for-profit world, all employees are ambassadors for their company, in the not-for-profit world, all staff are fundraisers. This is not to say that they all actually ask for donations, but they need to actively support the charitable mission and be prepared to talk about it to people they know or meet. What better way to help people reconnect with the mission than having a little fun at the same time?

What I loved about this campaign was that it involved EVERYONE, even the accounting department. The door above was decorated by people in one of the church's program areas. The door below is a virtual door, but real in the sense that it is where the money comes through: it is the workstation in the accounting department where the donations are processed.

Whether you are for-profit or not, the accounting department needs to be recognized and made to feel a part of the organization's mission.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

WOW! Free Microsoft Software

My client was a small association. Their "books" consisted of wide green sheets that recorded all of the transactions. At the end of the year, an external accountant would turn the sheets into financial statements, which would be presented to the Board of Directors several months later. The new Executive Director, Jan, wanted monthly financial statements and a faster year end. We had arranged to meet to discuss her needs, but she called a few days before, all excited.

"Guess what? I just bought our first computer. Oh, and our accounting system as well."

"Which one did you buy?"


That triggered a little discussion about the merits of a spreadsheet as an accounting program. I love Excel, but not for accounting. There is no audit trail. If you change the contents of a cell, no history is kept. It can be made to print invoices and checks, but it is awkward. I reassured Jan that she could get a good entry level accounting package for under $200.

Microsoft changed all that. Now you can get Microsoft Office Accounting Express for free, but please remember that the software is only half the battle. Planning and thoughtful setup of the system will save many hours and dollars later.

What do I mean?

Start by deciding what you want. In Jan's case, she needed financial statements to present to her Board. We polled the Board of Directors on what they wanted in their statements. Most of the Directors said they were happy with what they were getting, but one sent in a detailed response laying out the kind of expense break down he wanted to see. That became our detailed statement. We then subtotalled like accounts to create a summary statement.

Another client wanted to track the component costs of the dolly he was building and selling, so we used his manufacturing plans to determine what accounts to create.

In a nutshell, your accounting system needs to support your reporting needs and business decisions. Start with what you need and work backwards! Find a professional accountant with experience setting up accounting systems to begin with. Later on you may need only a bookkeeper to maintain the system or you may learn to do it all yourself.

What's next?

After system set up, write down your routine. Create some "cheat sheets" for the normal processes such as:
  • Invoicing customers

  • Depositing cash receipts

  • Paying the bills

  • Issuing purchase orders

  • What to do at month end

That way, even if you are sick or on vacation, there is a set of instructions for someone else to follow. Who knows? You may just grow to the point where you can hire someone to take all that administration off your hands!

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Top 50 Accounting Blogs

When I first read the Top 50 Accounting Blogs, I was surprised and delighted that there are enough accounting blogs to merit a top 50 list. To be included in the list was an honour. My thanks to MBA Explorer for taking the time to do the research. MBA Explorer is a web site devoted to helping people choose the best American MBA program for them.

Should accountants be blogging? My answer is an emphatic YES!, but you should also approach the subject cautiously.

In my early years in accounting, our firm produced newsletters. The tax one sticks in my mind, not just because one of the students' jobs was to run them over to client offices personally with each major tax change, but also because it was written by someone whose humour and point of view came across clearly. He injected his personality and experience into his writing. The result was that you felt like you knew the writer and would be comfortable talking to him about tax issues.

That would be my advice to a firm that wanted to start blogging: find someone on staff who is writing already (i.e. they have experience with and even enjoy putting their thoughts down coherently as well as working to a deadline). One of the problems I face is consistently coming up with new material.

If they don't have direct experience with blogging, then start by reading the Top 50! Make some comments on the posts. People do read the comments. Also, participating through other people's blogs gives you an entrance into the community. All of the bloggers I have met online have been helpful with the technical points of blogging as well as blog promotion. I get lots of ideas from other blogs.

Before starting a corporate blog, start with a personal blog for a few months, so your writer can get some risk-free experience. I would stay away from an external consultant who offers to write your blog for you. You want the voices of the experts in your company to be heard. Engaging a professional to help you promote your blog or to fit it within the context of your other marketing initiatives is a great idea, however.

Finally, be prepared to start small. Even if all the blog does is initiate a conversation with your existing clients, that alone is worth the effort. If you are already on this path, please leave me a comment about your experiences. At the end of the day, your firm's voice is the voices of its partners, consultants and staff. Blogging will help you get some of those voices heard.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Geek Anniversary Gifts

Stuck on what to give your favourite geek for his/her anniversary? Fear not! The internet has the answer:


A big thank you to Beth's Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media for the link.